Looking at the NHL & MLS

For sports fans, May is a great time of year.  Baseball is in full swing, the NBA playoffs are slowly moving forward, the MLS season is shaking out and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are bringing night after night of heart stopping excitement.  A bit of a personal statement here; I am not a hockey fan.  When the Hartford Whalers left town more than a decade ago, I swore off pucks forever.  However, when the NHL playoff season starts, I find a close game to be riveting television, despite having no rooting interest and very limited knowledge of the players on the ice.

Over the last few years, many soccer fans have opined that the beautiful game is overtaking hockey as the “4th” American professional sport.  Yet the recent NHL/NBC/Versus television deal belies that belief.  ESPN pays $8.5 million annually for MLS rights, yet that deal is part of a larger SUM/ABC/ESPN package that includes USMNT games and FIFA World Cup.  In contrast, the NHL recently announced its new deal which upped its annual fee from $77.5 million per year to over $185 million per season.  The deal includes games on Versus and NBC and requires the national telecast of every playoff game.  The difference between the deals is shocking and shows the gulf MLS still has to cross to reach the Big 4.

What makes the difference between the deals even more difficult for soccer fans to stomach is the relative similarity of the regular season television ratings garnered by each sport.  Prime time games on Versus averaged 353,000 viewers this year. MLS ratings have been pretty consistently around 250,000 per match, with some games reaching numbers at or above the NHL telecasts.  Despite these relative similarities, and the fact that local MLS broadcasts often outdraw local NHL broadcasts in the same market, MLS isn’t close in the all important tv revenue department.

MLS was trying to get $20 million per year from FSC for 2011 and the deal fell woefully short.  The ESPN deal runs through 2014, but ratings are flat.  MLS’ national profile has dramatically increased and the league is moving forwards in leaps and bounds, but claims that hockey has fallen behind are grossly overstated.